Is Andy Rubin's Essential Phone, well, essential?

The father of Android has his own new take on the phone. But is it enough to make you reconsider the age-old question: iPhone or Galaxy S?

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Roger Cheng
Richard Nieva
5 min read

The father of Android has a new baby.

Andy Rubin, who created the Android software that now runs on 2 billion active devices, has just unveiled the Essential Ph-1 (commonly referred to as the Essential Phone). In a blog post describing why he decided to jump back into the mobile fray, he talked about everything he doesn't like about technology.

"Less and less choice. More and more unnecessary features cluttering our lives. An increasing sea of products that didn't work with one another," he said. "And just when I was about to drop criticism it hit me: I am partly responsible for all of this."

Watch this: The Essential Phone is almost all screen

The Essential Phone is his way of fixing this "weird new world."

The phone world, well established with Apple and Samsung up top and everyone else scrambling behind, could use an injection of fresh ideas. But we've heard these grand promises from other companies, and they haven't amounted to much. Rubin's startup also faces significant challenges getting noticed in a world where most consumers still see the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S8 as the default options when it comes to premium phones. For Android purists, there's Google's Pixel phones.

Where does that leave the Essential Phone?

"The pitch here feels so much like almost every other new entrant in the market, a mix of straw man arguments about the current state of the market, grandiose claims about how all that will change, ambitions to build an ecosystem without any evidence that any other player is interested," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

There's also the reality of numbers. Samsung and Apple combine for nearly 40 percent of the smartphone market, according to Gartner. Most of the players that trail the two succeed by selling cheap phones.

Lots of questions

At $699, the Essential Phone is certainly not cheap. It looks like a typical premium phone, packing a dual-camera lens setup, the latest processor from Qualcomm, loads of RAM and a fingerprint sensor (no water resistance though).

The display goes beyond even Samsung's Galaxy S8 all-display look by wrapping the top of the screen around the central front-facing camera -- a touch that will set it apart from the field. Also unique are magnetic pins near the top of the rear of the phone designed for accessories like a 360-degree camera.

That's all great, but there's still plenty we don't know about the device, which is expected to arrive in the US in the next few months.

This is the Essential Phone

See all photos

Rubin promises a phone that evolves with you. That's presumably through software tricks and the magnetic connection in the back. The first accessory to pair with the phone is a 360 camera accessory that snaps onto the back. Presumably more accessories will be coming.

The strategy looks similar to that of Motorola's Moto Z, which has different accessories, or Mods, that snap to the back of the phone.

Essential also looks like it will take up the modular phone concept, but it's unclear whether companies will build hardware accessories for a phone that isn't going to win a massive audience like Apple or Samsung.

Lastly, how will Essential sell this phone? Phones in the US need massive marketing and carrier support (just count the Apple and Samsung ads at each commercial break). Companies without the right resources or partnerships struggle to even get out of the gate. So far, you can only reserve the phone on Essential's site.

Spokesmen for Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint declined to comment about carrying the phone, although Sprint and T-Mobile confirmed it would work on their networks. AT&T couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Rubin spoke Tuesday evening at Recode's Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, but didn't have many specifics on how he'll get tech giants and carriers to play nice.

"I'm trying as hard as I can," Rubin said. He was answering a question about preventing carriers from adding bloatware -- extra apps from handset makers and carriers -- to your phone.

The Pixel dilemma

The Essential Phone presents a quandary for hardcore Android enthusiasts: Who offers the purer form of Android?

Is it Google, which has spent the last nine years shepherding the evolution of Android? Or is it Rubin, who actually created the operating system?


The Pixel is the phone all Android purists want. Where does that leave the Essential Phone?

James Martin/CNET

While Pixel sales aren't in the stratosphere with the iPhone and Galaxy S franchises, the phone is quickly becoming the viable third option for consumers who want something different. It's already the go-to phone for Android enthusiasts.

But do Rubin's name and reputation justify a second look for hardcore fans?

"I see it for Android purists who see Rubin as a brand rather than Essential," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Essentially Rubin

If there's any one guy who's fit for being seen as a "brand" in smartphones, it's probably Rubin.

He gets most of his accolades for founding Android, the startup he sold to Google in 2005 for $50 million, but he began making his mark on smartphones long before that. Before Android, Rubin was CEO of Danger, which created the T-Mobile Sidekick . It's regarded by many as the first permutation of a smartphone -- with a full keyboard, email and a mobile web browser.


Andy Rubin has some lofty ambitions for his phone.

Kim Kulish, Corbis via Getty Images

Rubin ran Android at Google, then built up the company's nascent robotics division, before leaving the company in 2014. His follow-up act was Playground Global, an incubator -- techspeak for a company that nurtures young startups -- that focuses on firms specifically creating hardware products.

Playground has portfolio companies that have their hands in everything from internet-connected pool care to augmented reality glasses. Essential is itself a Playground company.

Funny thing about branding, though -- especially given the fact that Rubin is banking on all his personal starpower to get his product noticed in a world of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S phones -- he wants Essential branding to have no place on the phone. No logos anywhere.

"Just because we played a part in making it doesn't mean you should be forced to advertise that fact to everyone in your life," the company says on its website.

Same old story?

We've seen this story before. Remember Nextbit? The startup similarly garnered hype by pairing two original members of the Android team -- Tom Moss and Mike Chan -- with Scott Croyle, the designer behind the metal-clad HTC One M7 and M8.


The Essential Phone has a unique display that wraps around the center front-facing camera, giving you a virtually all-screen look.

Essential Products

Nextbit took the Kickstarter route in getting orders and funding for its Robin phone, easily hitting its goals. The company promised a phone that would be pure Android, but offer cloud storage on steroids.

But after the phone launched, Nextbit stayed quiet aside from a few minor updates. Gaming laptop company Razer acquired the startup in January, and we haven't heard from that team since.

Essential offers a similar story. It even has an HTC veteran in Jason MacKenzie, who headed up global marketing for the phone maker.

What's harder to quantify, though, is Rubin's involvement. That could make all the difference, and given his track record for success, it's hard to dismiss Essential.

After listing out the marketing, distribution and competitive challenges, this is how GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart capped off his thoughts: "All that said, I want one."

First published May 30, 12 p.m. PT.
Update, May 31 at 10:17 a.m. PT: Adds comments from Andy Rubin at Recode's Code Conference. 

It's Complicated: This is dating in the age of apps. Having fun yet? These stories get to the heart of the matter.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.